At a time when more Americans than ever are pursuing degrees beyond the four-year B.A., grad school classrooms are trying to figure out exactly what kind of institutions they are.
Grad students are professionals, of a sort, but business wear is inappropriately formal in most academic settings — even professors may avoid it, depending on the program and the institution.
The uniform sloppiness of jeans and T-shirts is equally unsuitable, if only because it makes it too hard to tell the grad students from the undergrads. And a grad student is likely to need a more flexible wardrobe in general than most people his age, since it has to cover everything from drinks with friends to presentations in front of prestigious academies.
All of that makes it hard to come up with a single “look” that’s good for every grad student in America. What young academics should be trying for instead is an attitude: relaxed confidence, assertive but not formal. Deliberate sloppiness like ripped jeans is pretty much out, except for casual gatherings of friends, but the daily work wear should have the same comfort as a favorite pair of denim beaters.
That means a relaxed fit, playful colors, and some stylistic variety — you don’t have to wear the same suit-and-tie five days a week, so don’t. Have some fun. Here are some favorite wardrobe touches to keep in mind for the next few school years:
Be the Man Dressing Up
Realistically, men under the age of 30 tend not to wear suit jackets or sport coats unless told to. Stand out by being the exception to the rule. Jackets are a flattering shape and tend to come in interesting and eye-catching options if you’re buying them as standalone sport coats — try on a few differently-colored tweed or corduroy pieces, or a light camels-hair, and see the effect.
The most casual jackets can even be paired with jeans, as long as the jeans are suitably dark. No tie is necessary (but it can be fun once in a while). Good-quality sweaters and vests can also help upgrade the generic collared-shirt-and-slacks look into something distinctive.
Own a Man’s Business Suit
If you’re serious about your field, you’re going to have to stand up in front of other people and talk about it at some point. Don’t be the guy that presents to the National Academy in sneakers and a plaid jacket. A plain, dark gray suit doesn’t have to be a huge investment, and you’ll be able to keep going back to it every time you’re invited to speak or present somewhere.
Gray’s not the only permissible color, of course, but it tends to be the most versatile — and stay away from black or very dark navy. Academic buildings tend to use fluorescent tube lighting that makes all but the darkest skin tones look washed-out and greenish against dark backgrounds. You’ll need a couple of ties and a good belt to go with your suit, obviously, but hopefully you already had those from our first piece of advice…
Accent Your Outfits
Academia is a competitive workforce. You want to stand out, and clothing can go a long way in helping. The people who know you well won’t need the help, but you never know when someone’s going to drop your name. Give them something to remember you by, even if it’s as simple as “that guy from the lab who wears the fancy hat.”
Pocket squares are wonderful accents, as are hats, belts and belt buckles, watches, neckties (or bowties for the classic academic look, but avoid the “nerd” image by wearing a jacket as well), and many other options. Older styles can make for memorable looks — consider sporting a pin collar, for example, or a pair of two-tone shoes.
Dress Neatly and Pay Attention to Details
At the end of the day, graduate programs aren’t the place to find runway fashions. You’re lucky if you can find a program where everyone knows how to tie his own shoes. If you aren’t willing to do anything else, you can still stand out by just getting everything right. Tuck your shirt in.
Wear belts that are sized right — the tongue shouldn’t extend more than a half-inch or so past the first belt loop. If you wear a tie, make sure it hangs to your belt or past it.
Choose socks that match your trousers, not your shoes; you want them to blend in with the pants as closely as possible when the cuffs ride high enough to show the socks. Run a comb through your hair and get it cut at least before major presentations. None of this is going to add more than a minute or two to your schedule, so take the extra seconds and stand out in the herd as a well-dressed grad student. It’s really not that much of a struggle.
Of course, nothing is going to stop the majority of young men from throwing on a blue button-down and a pair of khakis from their father’s closet. And there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this uniform look. But you can be the one that everyone remembers by making just a few changes (and by deliberately avoiding the look everyone else has), so why blend in?
Being noticed is never a bad thing, particularly when you’re competing for a limited pool of honors and careers. Just don’t be remembered for having a shirttail sticking out of your fly or anything…